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Sunday Life

Taliban sniper shot me in the head but I wouldn't miss my brother's wedding

'Bullet blasted through my brain, but it won't stop me' says brave Ulster squaddie

Alistair McKinney with Josie and Frank
Alistair McKinney with Josie and Frank

By Stephen Breen

A hero Ulster squaddie has told of his incredible fight for survival after he was shot through the head by a Taliban sniper.

Miracle man Alistair McKinney, whose family come from north Belfast, was patrolling in Afghanistan when he was blasted through the brain.

Yesterday the Royal Irish Regiment squaddie showed how he has defied all the odds when he celebrated his brother Kevin's wedding.

In a week in which other Ulster soldiers cheated death in Afghanistan, wheelchair-bound RIR Sergeant McKinney (36) defied doctors to be best man at the ceremony in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland.

The squaddie, who also served in south Armagh, Bosnia and Iraq, was hit by a sniper from hills as he patrolled his base perimeter at Musa Qala, Afghanistan, in August 2006.

The Taliban bullet entered his head above the left eye, passed through his brain and exited his skull above his right ear.

In an extraordinary interview with Sunday Life, the dad-of-one tells how he:

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l Was forced to learn to walk again;

l Contracted tuberculosis;

l Caught the MRSA bug before being flown back to the UK;

l Suffered serious eye problems;

l Developed a large cerebral abscess on his brain; and how he

l Suffered personal agony when his wife left him.

Said the hero soldier: "They've told me that I'm a miracle case and and the injuries I sustained would prove fatal 99.9 times out of 100.

"I don't consider myself some sort of hero and I can't remember much about the shooting. But there was no way I was going to miss my brother's wedding.

"He has been there for me so it was only fair I worked tirelessly to be there for him on his big day. I redoubled my efforts in rehab to make sure I could walk for a short distance yesterday.

"The only thing I can remember is that I was talking to another squaddie at the time and if my head hadn't been turned to the left then the bullet would have went straight through my eye and killed me."

Although he suffered life-threatening injuries, Alistair also told how splitting from his wife of 16 years Tracey had been "extremely difficult".

Added the RIR man: "I don't want to elaborate to much on this because it's personal, but it has been very hard since my wife left me.

"I don't know her reasons,but I can't dwell on this too much because I have a huge fight ahead of me.

"It's a shame this has happened and my family are naturally upset for me but there's nothing I can do about it now."

The ex-soldier was treated in Pakistan for three weeks before being flown back to the UK.

He added: "It was a number of weeks before I was sent home and if things weren't bad enough I contracted TB and a form of MRSA when I was being treated in Pakistan.

"I was told that because the wound on my head was so open I was susceptible to infection. I couldn't believe what was going on.

"My parents, Josie and Frank, were at their wits' end when I was away and I'm sure they thought they had lost me. I just couldn't believe I survived the shooting when the medics described where the round had passed.

"I was out for weeks and it was just great to get home again to see my family again."

Since returning to England, where he and his family now live, he has amazed doctors at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham with his fight for life.

He is now being treated at the armed services' rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, Epsom, Surrey.

Said the former squaddie: "I can't complain because I've no right to be alive in all honesty.

"I'm still wheelchair bound at the moment but I'm getting up on feet more and more these days. I can slowly feel the paralysis down my left side easing.

"It's frustrating sometimes that things take time to heal. But I know I face a long road road to recovery.

"I have great family and medical staff around me so I'm confident I can get better in the months ahead."

Alistair, whose father Frank also served with the RIR, told how he had "no regrets" about his 17 years of service.

He added: "My father served his country with pride and I had no problem following in his footsteps because it was the only job for me.

"I'm not bitter about what happened because I was just doing my job. I know I could have been killed but I wouldn't change anything about my time in RIR.

"If I had to do it all over again I would. When you pull on that uniform you know the risks involved but it doesn't stop you doing your job.

"I've loved my time in the RIR and if that Taliban bullet hadn't entered my head then I would still be out there today.

The brave officer, who cannot remember the shooting, also praised the RIR for helping him in his rehabilitation, adding: "The RIR have been absolutely fantastic to me and my family. If it wasn't for their excellent medical staff then I wouldn't be here today.

"I know I face a long road to recovery but when I have these amazing people helping me then it makes me more determined to make it.

"The facility at Headley Court is one of the best in the world and there are other soldiers worse off than me receiving treatment who will tell you the same thing.

"They are a credit to the RIR because they take care of the officers who have just returned from the field. As soon as you come through the door the level of care they provide is fantastic.

"There are many soldiers from Northern Ireland receiving treatment at this centre and their level of bravery just amazes me every single day."

And he paid tribute to the Ulster men and women who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Said the ex-squaddie: "I would like to extend best wishes to the boys and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan — they are doing a fantastic job.

"They are putting their lives on the line on a daily basis in order to help people who have been living under brutal regimes.

"I sometimes don't think they get the credit they deserve and I think about them every day. I just wish I was fit enough to be with them."

Alistair also spoke about his plans for the future, adding: "At the moment I'm just trying to get my independence back and then I will take it from there. I'm now walking short distances with the aid of a zimmer frame and I have just been taking it each day as it comes for the last two years.

"I know I won't be on the frontline again but if I can still have an association with the RIR then this would be great.

"I don't want young men to be worried about joining because of what happened to me because the experiences I've had over the years will live with me forever."

His courageous fight for life also prompted Prince Andrew to pay him a visit last year.

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